At 4 AM I was dragged awake by the intermittent bleating of the two watches I'd brought down with me for just this purpose: to insist electronically that I get the hell out of my sleeping bag and avoid a repetition of the last time I came down here to climb these mountains. Then—last Thanksgiving break—I had woken up freezing at the Mill Creek trailhead, even in my 20-below bag. I found it impossible to get up and had instead pulled another bag over myself, burrowed further in, and when I warmed, dropped back to sleep. Surfacing finally from my cocoon, I had been dismayed and more than a little ashamed to see that it was 10 AM—a full four hours after I had intended to be on the trail.
Not this time, though. For I found myself up and out before I knew enough to second-guess my own determination. Overhead the valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, the Milky Way was a vague smear through a million other points of light. There was light enough to pick out the peaks around me: Whitecross the only one I could name, but the entire horizon was a sequence of snowy, starlit ridges and peaks.
Given the half-dozen tents and trucks at the trailhead and given the conversation I’d had with one of the team of four fraternity brothers (from Texas A & M, I think) the previous night, wherein he told me that he'd talked to a couple who had taken 12 hours that day to climb both peaks, and had post-holed all their way down, despite their early start and, more intimidatingly, their snow-shoes… given all of that, I'd thought that at this time of the morning the trailhead would be abuzz with climbers setting off. But no, I was the only one up. I had worked my way through a liter of water, a half-liter of Gatorade and an execrable PowerBar and was almost ready to leave before any of the other tents lit up.
The trail hugs the north slopes of the Silver Creek drainage and is bare and dry all the way up through the trees, with the exception of a few debris-filled run-out zones at the bottom of chutes draining the slopes on the opposite, north-facing side of the valley. Silver Creek is in full flow. By the time I reached the south-easterly head of the valley, the sun was pinking the top of Handies, visible back down Silver Creek and up Grizzly Gulch on the opposite side of the Lake Fork valley. This is where the dreaded snow-banks begin, but I was reaping the rewards of my (somewhat) early start and my reluctance to rest along the way, for all the snow was still frozen, and made for easy uphill walking in boots. I relished my good fortune, but the deep postholes descending beside me spoke loud and clear: the descent, after a day of snow-softening sun, was going to suck rancid yak pus. I could only imagine the lurching and cursing that went on in the creation of this downhill path, yesterday.
I made good time up to the pass at 13,020', reaching it exactly two hours from the trailhead. Here at last I rested, downed another liter of Gatorade and looked around. The classic tumult of the San Juans bounds endlessly to the east and south—it was at once disorienting and beautiful. On every mountainside I could see, at all aspects and elevations was evidence of recent slide activity, some seeming to run for a couple of thousand feet: a clear warning to anybody wanting to ski these slopes. Above, beyond a thin layer of altostratus, there were only a few innocuous-looking puffs.
After a few minutes rest, I started up the north-east ridge, which was snowy on the left (E) but, in the main, bare. It was certainly possible to pick a path up the scree that avoided the snow, and having stashed my ice-ax and crampons safely in the back of the truck, I did so. As I climbed, the few San Juan landmarks I do recognize hove into view above the ridge over my right shoulder—Uncompahgre, Matterhorn, Wetterhorn were splendid, but their basin was completely swathed in snow. Behind them reared Coxcomb and over to the left was Lizards Head.
Then it was up onto the falsie and only a short walk up to the glowing red summit. It was now only 8 AM; three hours after I left my tent and plenty of time, I thought, looking south, for a lightning jaunt over to Sunshine and back. The sky had brightened and above the altostratus, each tiny puff was blossoming into larger cumulohumilis. “Very pretty,” I thought, “just like pastry puffs.” (I think I was hungry.) From Redcloud summit, the traverse seemed a piece of cake (definitely hungry); just a stroll down and up the 500-or-so feet vertical in little over a horizontal mile. I signed the register, and noted names that I recognized in last September’s sheets.
I shoved a Nalgene of Gatorade in the pocket of my shell, dumped my pack, and was off to Sunshine at a trot. As I made the descent off Redcloud a couple of climbers crested the summit behind me but, no doubt mindful of the early building weather, they were soon gone. Despite its appearance from Redcloud, the traverse between to Sunshine was long and also, for the most part, tedious. It essentially skirts the west side of Point 13,841 on a scree slope but offers great views to the west down into the prime ski territory of the South Fork of Silver Creek. I spent my crossing fantasizing about the distant future, looking forward to a time when I am adept enough on my teles to launch off Sunshine’s west face, slot the cliffs, and run on down the South Fork to the main Silver Creek valley, carving elegant, effortless esses all the way. Given my current ability, it was just a far-fetched dream, but it was enough to distract me until I got to the ascent of the Sunshine summit block. Here, a couple of fairly exposed, snowy moves required my full attention, as a single misstep would have air-mailed me to oblivion: either east down a thousand feet or so of steeply inclined snowfield into the Bent Creek drainage, or west down rock chutes into the South Fork drainage. But they were not difficult moves—just a careful foot-placing up some moderately inclined snow: time to kick those boots in well. The moves soon passed and then it was up to the summit of Sunshine, where I stood a mere 12 inches above the magical 14,000' tide-mark.
There was too much snow on the summit for me to find the register, and I felt the pressure of the weather closing in from the east. In the hour it had taken me to make the traverse, thunderheads had reared up, and now filled the sky across the Bent Creek drainage. This was a shocking sight, as it was only a little after 9 AM. I had never seen such clouds so early. They had not yet reached the tropopause, but were not far off it. They seemed to developing westward towards the summit of Redcloud and directly threatened my path home. For now, only a few virgas presaged the storms to come, but I took their point and, after a quick look down the “Long East Ridge” route up from Mill Creek—the way I was supposed to have come last Thanksgiving, had I not frozen my determination to death at the trailhead—I left the summit, and plunge-stepped carefully down the snow slopes and back off the summit block, keeping a weather-eye on developments to the west.
The trudge back down to the 13,500' saddle, up around Point 13,841, and over to Redcloud seemed to have doubled in length. My feet were hot and bruised, my blood sugar low, and my mood worried at the building clouds. When I finally made it back to Redcloud and my pack, I snatched a few moments to snap a few pictures of myself on the summit, of the looming weather, and of the surrounding peaks. Then I shouldered my pack, stormed the falsie, and started on down the ridge towards the pass at 13020'.
Descending the ridge I saw three figures below, making slow progress up the northeast ridge. "What are they thinking?" I thought to myself. I forego the "Shall I, shan't I?" questioning involved in offering advice to other climbers. "Screw their reaction," I thought, "I will suggest they turn around." When I get to them they turn out to be a father with two boys and I turn out not to need to mention the weather: the father is already concerned and really, I think, just needs a push over the edge into a turnaround. They were clad only in jeans and sweats but otherwise seemed prepared with water, food and waterproof layers. I seized my opportunity to give him the push: without his asking, I told him, loudly enough for his two boys to hear, "It took me a good hour from here to the summit, and I was moving pretty fast." In normal circumstances, this is something I would never, ever do—I hate it when anybody on their way down offers me a time-estimate for the rest of my ascent. But these are not normal circumstances, and I don’t want anybody’s deaths on my conscience.
The father and I agreed on how poor the weather looked, and how early. When I mentioned hypothermia and lightning all their faces fell. But I think the father was relieved. “My job is done,” I thought grimly, “their bubbles are burst.” I wished them well and descended quickly below them. They kept moving up, but I knew it was just going to be a couple of minutes before they turned around. They needed that space to be able to make the decision for themselves, not have it handed to them from some oracle down from on high. Indeed, when I looked back again, just a few minutes later, they had turned around and were well below where we had met.
The four fraternity brothers I met just below the pass were another matter. When I made my pitch about the weather to their leader and guide—the brother with whom I had talked the previous night—he readily agreed. "Tell the others," he said, rolling his eyes and indicating his friends, spread out over a few hundred vertical feet on the trail below him. "They're nuts. They want to keep going."
I did so, stopping at each of them as I passed, warning them of the weather over the pass, "...that you can't see yet," I put it to them, trying to intimate that I had more information than they were privy to yet; that I wasn’t questioning their sanity, not asking them, "are you totally deaf and blind to the blazingly obvious?" not wanting to question their sanity, not wanting to suggest they pocket their egos and turn around, not wanting to ask them where were their packs, their waterproof clothing, their extra water bottles. To express that level of incredulity would have been not only rude, but counter-productive.
After I talked to the last one, he called up ahead “Perhaps we ought to rethink this, Marty!” I continued on down with high hopes for their common sense and safety.
Just off the final slopes down from the pass, I met another couple with a dog. They were up from Los Alamos, and they looked fully equipped and they seemed to know what they were doing. We discussed the weather, but I proffered no advice. They continued on up behind me, making good time, as I donned my snow-shoes for the rest of the descent through the upper valley.
My snow-shoes on, I turned around for a final look at the mountain: It was socked in, obliterated by wet grey; even the pass at 13,020' was dimmed; the surrounding ridges were barely visible. From all around me resounded echoes of thunder. The four fraternity brothers were barely visible through the oncoming weather, high above me now, but making snails’ progress, and still upwards. I shook my head and wondered what else I could have said to persuade then to turn around, to stow their egos, to convince them that the mountains are no place to bring their particular brand of mutually reinforced machismo. I wondered at the extents of my responsibility towards other unhurt and seemingly otherwise sane climbers intent on doing something stupid. I still don't know the answer to this one, and disappointed that what I had said had not seemed to be enough, I continued on, post-holing through the snow banks even in my large snowshoes in a pure frustration of the most shambling, lurching, stop-and-go variety.
But the frustration was over before long. As I stowed my snowshoes at the end of the lowest snowfield, it started to hail. It hailed on and off and continued to rumble all the way back to the trailhead, where I struck my camp at 12:45 PM, and moved off into my 400-mile drive home, still fleeing ahead of the weather.